Building the present: thinking of the future

Issue 3, Volume 49, 2000

Rolando Araya Monge, Presidential candidate of the National liberation Party in Costa Rica, sets out his vision

The small states of Central America and the Caribbean throughout their history have faced the challenge of promoting the welfare of their people in an international context over which they have had little or no control.

The processes of change in the last two decades have transformed relations among states and opened new opportunities. As economic blocs are being formed and markets opened, Central America has been creative and has favoured growing sub-regional economic integration. This must be deepened.

The countries of the Isthmus see each other as a part of one region while Europe, the United States and other important countries treat Central America as a region. Nevertheless there are deep inequalities among the seven small states: Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Such inequalities must be reduced and eliminated as a condition of regional development.

The UN Human Development Index over the last five years shows that while Costa Rica and Panama have not fallen below fiftieth place in the world Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica have always ranked in hundredth place or below. These asymmetries are visible in the economic, social and political fields.

The various economies have grown unevenly. In the last 15 years Costa Rica's average growth has been six times greater than that of Nicaragua at the other extreme. This is reflected in a per capita Gross National Product that is eight times greater. Although the countries are similar in that exports are crucial to them all, the value of these exports are nine times greater in one as compared to another.

Consequently there are also significant differences in employment and income: unemployment was up to five time greater in one country than in another and the average minimum wage triples as one goes from one country to another. This is all reflected in social conditions, the percentage of the population without access to the basic services of water and health in some countries is up to eight times greater than in others. In political matters within democratic regimes we find countries with a greater degree of institutional development, in terms of both quality and quantity. The political systems, the parties, the ways of voting, the political culture, the interest groups, civil society and general participation are equally varied.

Despite this, beyond these asymmetries, Central America is one region. It is, moreover, a depressed region.

The average annual economic growth of the countries of the region in the last 15 years is hardly more than 3 per cent. In earlier years the region lived through economically difficult years as a result of the international situation and events in each country. These economic difficulties were made worse by the situations of internal war which claimed a large part of the meagre national growth. Thirty years have passed during which growth has not allowed any appreciable improvement of the lives of Central Americans.

Economic calamities and the domestic divisions in some countries have been spasmodically worsened by natural disasters which have destroyed much of this meagre progress. In varying degrees and often with internal divisions the region has lost trade opportunities which could have sustained greater economic growth which could have in turn improved scientific, technological and economic development in the region.

The international community has contributed to the always partial recovery but until now has not offered the Central American countries real opportunities for growth and development, merely palliatives for a precarious situation.

The figures are eloquent: in the first seven months of 2001 more than 140,000 cases of dysentery have been found in Honduras and Nicaragua and in Nicaragua and Guatemala many have starved to death. In El Salvador haemorrhagic dysentery and cholera have caused grave suffering. In Costa Rica and Panama, too, things are getting worse. My country is experiencing the slowest economic growth in a decade and Panama has seen unemployment rise to alarming heights which on average hover around 25 per cent of the economically active population.

Despite the deteriorating situation, Central America is determined to behave like a region because it sees itself as one, because the international community sees it as one and fundamentally because of historical and physical reasons.

From the time of its political independence at the beginning of the nineteenth

century, the Central Americans set out to seek the unity of the region. But local interests and dictatorships encouraged by foreign trade and economic interests defeated the desire some Central Americans had for unity. Nevertheless from then on Central Americans have clung onto the aspiration to become a region though this has not become reality.

The second great push for integration in Central America started more than forty years ago. The reason for integration was the promotion of economic development through the creation of a common market which would promote growth based on import substitution. Once again local interests, always promoted from abroad, were powerful enough to stifle the process. Much was learned from this first exercise with regard to negotiation, political cooperation and becoming acquainted with the financial and economic élites.

The third push towards regional integration comes with the Esquipulas agreements which lead to peace at the end of the 1980s. There is a convergence of wills. They are the first serious coming together of presidents in the interest of good neighbourliness. It is the first sign that Central Americans are taking their destiny in their own hands with the respect and support of the international community. From this point on there are democratic governments in all the countries of Central America.

Finally the process which led to the Alliance for Sustainable Development, ALIDES, opened up a spectrum of subjects on which there could be agreement and cooperation. The objectives were ambitious and the powerful thrust for progress fell victim to undeniable differences among the governments. But the Alliance, seen as a strategy for development, continues to be the glue for the new Central America which must come into being.

Paradoxically the world's disastrous management of the environment has given our peoples new reasons to come together, combine their efforts, seek their rights and demand their opportunities. On a land mass of little more than 500,000 square kilometres, Meso-America has six per cent of the planet's bio-diversity which makes it one of the world's richest regions. Little by little Central America has realised that this reality is not sustainable without a great degree of cooperation among the Central American nations and without the support of the international community.

The natural resources and bio-diversity contained on the Isthmus cannot be handled in a purely national context. In order to sustain our natural heritage, work must be based on a broad vision based on the objectives of the Alliance for Sustainable Development subscribed to by the Central American states.

The international situation of this new century will be an essential factor in the development of countries both large and small. To recognise this is to recognise there could be negative outcomes but it also makes it incumbent on us to seek new sort of linkages and to create sub-regional blocs able to give us more room for manoeuvre and to allow us to take advantage of the benefits of an ever more interconnected world.

As economic blocs are formed and markets open, Central America must be creative and draw together as a sub-region. Never before has integration been of more decisive strategic importance.

Central America has no other option than to increase integration, the creation of mechanisms of intra-regional integration to ensure the success of our efforts.

I believe that Costa Rica must re-establish its cooperation with the rest of Central America and take on more diligent initiatives with regard to the rest of the hemisphere at a time when our countries are moving towards a Free Trade Area of the Americas, a place which, if we design it with intelligence and cooperation, can become the melting pot of prosperity which Bolivar dreamed of.

More than four decades of successive initiatives for integration make us analyse our errors critically. The most visible has been the attempt to go down the paths trodden with success by other peoples. At times the desire to do too much has been an obstacle to our efforts. In part this has been because we Central Americans have wanted to take advantage of outside stimuli and thereby we have accepted the transplantation of schemes not based in our historic experience. The effort to adopt to some measure the institutional framework which gave rise to today's Europe is such an example and it has not borne fruit in the region.

At other times it has been the attempt to reach unrealistic goals which has frustrated our efforts. Success is not possible if, with absolute realism, one does not distinguish what is possible from what is not possible. The existing asymmetries must be reduced and the push for integration must start from the minimum acceptable to all countries. In parallel the countries of Central America must negotiate joint strategies to overcome the asymmetries which hinder integration. Agreement on joint goals and the cooperation to reach them must have priority. The broadening of the basis for integration is the first priority.

Lastly it is necessary to overcome the mistrust traditionally existing between countries and the frontier disputes used to channel peoples' discontent.

Nevertheless, the integration possible today - the treatment of natural resources, the preservation of bio-diversity and the strategy for the region's economic insertion into the world - is already a firm basis for negotiation with the international community and for the promotion of a real process of development for Central America.

It is not possible to preserve bio-diversity and treat the region's natural resources in a sustainable way if it is not made less vulnerable by attacking the causes of poverty and marginalisation in which many millions of Central American live. It would seem that for the first time the interest of Central Americans is coinciding with those of humanity as a whole. At the same time the fragility of Central America with regard to natural disasters is the product of environmental factors and also of structural problems of an economic and social nature. If this vulnerability is to be confronted the support of the international community is also indispensable, not just in the form of development cooperation, but also, and principally, by the offer of real opportunities to take part in international trade and the benefit which flow from new discoveries, science and technology. Central America's task at hand is to invest more in its people.

The main challenges which Central America will have to face in the 21st century do not have to do with trade, nor even economics, but are political and social. Production and wealth generation will only have meaning if they come about in the framework of mature democratic societies committed to solidarity based on the efficient and reliable rule of law. The only way to guarantee Central America a future is through the development of democratic institutions able to bring about change in education and technology that the inhabitants of this region seek and which cannot be produced amid social exclusion and poverty.

This is the vision which I want to share with many other men and women with political responsibilities in Central America and the objective to which I want to dedicate much of my time in the coming years.